A year away from a historic transition affecting the digital landscape, the head of the organization that regulates Web addresses warns that much still needs to be done to keep the Internet intact, regardless of whether the U.S. relinquishes its oversight as expected.
“New mechanisms, new methods of governance, need to be created, and we are yet to figure them out,” Fadi Chehade, CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, told The Washington Times in a recent interview.
“If we don’t figure this out, in my opinion, in the next two to three years, we are going to have some major problems.”
ICANN’s role with respect to Internet governance is on the cusp of a change that has been anticipated since the organization was formed 17 years ago in response to calls from policymakers who saw the need to establish some degree of structure for the expanding online sphere. Outside of the group’s scope, however, Mr. Chehade said, are several critical issues — human rights, privacy and access to the Internet, to name a few — which he fears could bring further problems if not adequately resolved within the next few years.
Leading ICANN since 2012, Mr. Chehade has witnessed and often participated in momentous changes to the World Wide Web and understands the passion each creates.
As recently as last month, ICANN encountered a firestorm after publishing a proposal that privacy advocates said would ravage the concept of anonymity on the Internet. Earlier, ICANN’s decision to allow websites to register “dot-sucks” domains drew ire from people who said the costs of intellectual property protection would be astronomical.
But the group’s biggest moment is slated for next year when the U.S. government is expected to relinquish oversight of the organization nearly two decades after the White House helped shepherd its creation in an effort to ensure the stability and security of the Web.
Less than a year ago, lawmakers in Washington warned that having the U.S. give up its ties to ICANN could let a nation with more restrictive Internet laws commandeer ownership over critical functions of the Web.
“The likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping should not dictate what can be read, written, distributed, bought and sold on the Internet,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said at the time. “Countries that do not give their own people the right to speak freely deserve no say in what Americans can say and do on the Internet.”
Mr. Chehade said he faced similar concerns from Capitol Hill. But after he testified in July before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology, he said, Congress apparently realizes that those warnings are unrealistic and it’s time to give up the role.
When a transition away from U.S. involvement is expected to conclude late next year, Mr. Chehade said, all that will change is that a clerk in the office of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce, no longer will have to rubber-stamp ICANN’s work each time it decides the Web needs a new top-level domain to add to .com, .org, .biz and others.
Mr. Chehade said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has not once rejected an application from ICANN for these top-level domains.
“More than anything, it’s symbolic,” he said of the government’s role. “Because the U.S. created this structure — they created most of these institutions — you have to give them that credit.
“The moment the U.S. government steps away, we take away all the arguments of the countries who are saying, ‘Why do they have a special role? We should have a special role.’”
In June, the House overwhelmingly passed the Dotcom Act, which will require ICANN to submit to Congress for approval a framework showing how the organization plans to cleanly cut ties with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and rely instead on input from the multistakeholder community when it comes to governing issues on what Mr. Chehade calls the “logical layer” of the Internet.
“This is the names, the numbers, the protocol parameters,” he told The Times. “The layer that makes the Internet look like one Internet. And that layer is the layer for the last three years we have been working for its governance.”
Although the creators of ICANN didn’t break down the Internet into a polycentric model of digital governance like Mr. Chehade did, they long ago agreed that the U.S. should maintain a limited degree of oversight to help protect the integrity of the Web until ICANN could function on its own. Once the transition is complete, Mr. Chehade said, “it means we have finalized the independence.”
“If you were a steward of something for 16 years, you don’t want to let go of your responsibility on the last day,” he said. “This is not something that I always run around and say, that I welcome government participation or oversight, but in this case, it was important for them as they’ve been the steward for 16 years, that as they are letting go, they make sure that the principles, the principles of the freedom of the Internet, the openness of the Internet, are maintained.”
Although the Internet as the world knows it mutates constantly with varying results, the head of ICANN said it’s critical that the world figure out how to handle the only “layer” that he doesn’t think has been resolved.
“This is what I call the economic and societal layer. This layer has all the issues that we are now getting into, and I can tell you right now here we have a problem. “
Those problems, Mr. Chehade said, exist as a result of what has made the Internet such a powerful tool for democracy. Not only does the medium allow people to instantaneously share ideas, images and anything else that can be digitized, but the absence of borders also has brought issues including privacy, human rights and open access to the surface of the economic and societal layer.
“Water rights is a perfect example of how people along the years brought decisions on how to manage a river, what bridges to build, what dams to build, what tunnels to build, who gets water rights to what. All of this was done for a resource that crossed national boundaries. The problem with the Internet is that it crosses all boundaries. It’s instant, it’s not physical and it happens like this,” Mr. Chehade said with a snap of his fingers.
“That international system is fully challenged now by the Internet because it actually doesn’t understand its borders. That’s the power of the Internet. We don’t want to take it away. Yet we need to create mechanisms to ensure that we can address issues when egregious things are happening.”
Another challenge, Mr. Chehade said, surfaced after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed top-secret documents that exposed the U.S. government’s use of the Internet in counterterrorism efforts.
“Snowden did something. His revelation raised the whole issue of who governs all of this to the highest levels,” said Mr. Chehade, who acknowledged that leadership in Brazil, China and India have all changed pages since the start of the Snowden revelations and have begun embracing a multistakeholder model for Internet governance that would ensure no one world power can co-op the technology.
“We don’t want more government intrusion,” Mr. Chehade said, noting that a proposal to give the United Nations a leading role with respect to governance once backed by Brazilian President Dilma Roussef in the wake of the NSA leaks has since been abandoned.
ICANN has no interest in enforcing content on the Web, he added, and insists that cutting ties with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration won’t allow any government to get away with doing as much either.
Although open-Internet proponents have disavowed governments that have tried to influence the operation of the Web time and time again, some fear the absence of U.S. oversight might be dangerous.
Paul Garrin, a New York City-based artist, has been pursuing legal action against ICANN since the 1990s over the organization’s handling of top-level domains, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case in March.
“Relinquishing U.S. control only means that ICANN can’t hide behind the U.S. [government] anymore,” Mr. Garrin told The Times. “ICANN can’t be trusted to honor any stakeholders beyond their insiders. The saying goes, ‘I CANN, You CANN’t.’”
On Friday, the appeals court ruled against Mr. Garrin.
“Some people want or would prefer for the U.S. government to continue to have a symbolic role,” Mr. Chehade said. “And what we are saying is the continued symbolic role of the U.S. in that layer actually makes it harder for us to fend off other governments who want to have an equal role. So by removing that irritant, we can tell everybody, ‘Look, this layer is working, it’s being run by the experts, leave it alone.’ And what we are getting from the world is exactly that feedback.”